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Bird Food Goes Premium

Independent pet specialty retailers are finding that offering quality yields better sales and provides a competitive advantage in the category.


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Pet bird keepers are increasingly aware of the role quality diets play in keeping their avian charges healthy, and attention to diet quality and variety has become paramount in the industry, insiders reported.

“We have a lot of customers who are really concerned with feeding their birds the best-quality foods that they can find,” said Caroline Morgan, owner of TC Feathers Aviary in Chantilly, Va. “Over the years, we’ve determined what works best for our birds and what helps in the long-run as far as the quality of the food.”

For most of her customers, quality is the main consideration, Morgan added.

“Most people’s perception is that quality matters and you get what you pay for,” she said.

Mirroring the trend in human nutrition labeling, bird owners are increasingly seeking information about what goes into bird food offerings.

Walt Ecklof, owner of Bird Lover’s Paradise in Matawan, N.J., said customers often ask if the various blends of bird food offered in the store have additives or supplements. “We label everything that’s here so that customers can see what’s in the bag,” he said. “We can read them the ingredients; we can show them the ingredients.”

Bird Lover’s Paradise stocks 37 blends and diets in-store, Ecklof noted.

“We recommend that customers rotate within the blend for their birds so that the birds don’t get bored with the seed, and they get better nutrition variety,” he said.

Smaller retailers might face challenges stocking that range of variety, especially if their location is full-line, but in some cases, special ordering and online sales can help close the gap.

“The store’s not big enough to hold everything,” said Lana Mills, owner of Aqua Pets & Birds in Killeen, Texas. “We have an online store where customers can special order stuff and choose in-store pickup. That does well for us.”

Many owners are interested in food offerings that mimic birds’ diets in the wild. This can make a difference when it comes to starting out or switching birds to pelleted diets.

“[Birds] like the natural-looking pellets better,” said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. “We always recommend fresh fruits and vegetables for them, in addition to their main diet.”

New Products

Tried and True

Innovation in avian diets is focused more on subtle tweaks and optimum nutrition, rather than new formulations or ingredients.

“We haven’t added any new foods,” said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. “We have both seed and pelleted diets. We carry Harrison’s, ZuPreem, Rowdy Bush, Pretty Bird—all pelleted diets. Then we carry Kaytee and Sunseed for seed. We also [sell] Lafeber’s Nutri-Berries.”

There are some new offerings on the horizon, however. Caitec Corp. plans to release around 20 SKUs sometime in the near future, said Terry Gao, president of the Halethorpe, Md.-based company.

“It’s been an increasing category for us,” he said. “We decided we’d either have to drop it or ramp it up, so we decided to ramp it up.”

The company will introduce several treats for parrots in its Oven Fresh baked bird food brand late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter of 2018, said Bill McGrath, bird product development specialist for Caitec. The company also has a variety of micro-targeted Oven Fresh bird diets in development with a projected release of early 2019, he added.

“Bird owners are increasingly looking for foods that may promote overall health care,” McGrath said. “Today’s consumer is more health conscious than ever, particularly when it comes to food.”

Additionally, customers are increasingly sensitive to certain ingredients, some industry participants reported.

“Our Hagen Avicultural Research Institute (HARI) Tropican formulated diets now include a no corn or soy formulation alternative,” said Melanie Allen, avian product specialist for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass.

One of HARI’s longest ongoing research projects involves nutritional longevity studies with formulated diets on companion birds, Allen noted. The Tropican formulation includes alternative proteins such as quinoa, green peas, ground walnut and pumpkin, she added.

The most notable innovation in pet bird diets today is the increase in sheer variety of food available on the market today. Some diets include a variety of pellet and seed offerings, among other ingredients, while some pet specialty retailers mix their own blends for customers.

“We’re big on variety,” said Caroline Morgan, owner of TC Feathers Aviary in Chantilly, Va. “We sell 50-50 pellets and a seed or nut mix.”

Premium brands and diets are the most popular items right now, some retailers reported.

“We will special order almost anything, but we have Volkman in stock, or some of the Kaytee, Higgins and Vitakraft products,” said Lana Mills, owner of Aqua Pets & Birds in Killeen, Texas.

No matter the brand, customers today are seeking nutritious products that they can afford.

“I use Moyers, Nutra Golden Feast, Versele-Laga—they’re all good-quality diets,” said Walt Ecklof, owner of Bird Lover’s Paradise in Matawan, N.J., adding that customers expect reasonably priced options. “We sell Harrison’s, ZuPreem, Lafeber and Rowdy Bush as well. We don’t use any of the big-box store brands.”

Price Points

Quality Matters Most

Though most customers are price sensitive to some degree, independent pet specialty retailers reported that bird keepers are often less sensitive to price point and are more focused on quality.

“People who are more concerned with a more economic price buy it in bulk,” said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., adding that most of her customers aren’t focused on price.

However, while quality ingredients often mean higher price points, some customers still seek out highly nutritious products that are priced to meet more conservative budgets.

“People who come in to our store are expecting premium-quality food at reasonable prices,” said Walt Ecklof, owner of Bird Lover’s Paradise in Matawan, N.J. “We’re selling breeder-quality food. We’re not selling the box-store, store-brand type of food.”

Human-grade ingredients are increasingly popular.

“We buy and sell human-grade nuts,” said Caroline Morgan, owner of TC Feathers Aviary in Chantilly, Va. “The quality is drastically different. People really like that, and the birds really like that because the quality is a lot higher.”

Because her store is focused on birds, Morgan carries a greater variety than many competitors, she noted. Customers will travel long distances and pay for shipping just to get more of those specialized foods, Morgan added.

“We don’t carry any brands we deem to be lower quality,” she said. “That’s deliberate, because we want people to use what’s healthy for their birds. Most people appreciate that, and it keeps them coming back,” Ecklof added.

Customer Education

The In-Person Advantage

It’s important for new bird owners to understand the importance of diet, and for pet specialty retailers, that means making sure customers understand the differences in various options.

“Not all foods are created equal,” said Caroline Morgan, owner of TC Feathers Aviary in Chantilly, Va. “Some people do their own research. I’d say about 60 percent of people come in and know they need to offer pellets, and understand that’s where birds get their vitamins and minerals. We try to educate people about the source of the ingredients.”

It’s necessary for store employees to be up to speed so that they can help educate customers effectively.

“Customers can’t get their bird’s wings clipped online,” said Walt Ecklof, owner of Bird Lover’s Paradise in Matawan, N.J. “They can’t come in and check it for nutrition. You can’t get that stuff online. These few extra steps you can take—combined with knowledge and experience, and having qualified staff who really care about what they’re doing and have a genuine love for the birds—help tremendously.”

Aside from having a quality assortment of bird foods, retailers assert that it is equally important to promote the available products and educate customers about their various attributes and benefits.

“You’ve got to preach it, and show customers the difference in the bird,” Ecklof said. “You’ve got to believe in what you’re selling.”

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